Men as Caregivers: Beyond Toughing it Out

By Kendra Micka, MSW, Family Consultant, Del Oro Caregiver Resource Center

As our population continues to expand and the life expectancy of individuals increases, so will the number of men who find themselves in the role as primary caregiver to a loved one. A recent National Family Caregiver Alliance (NFCA) survey revealed that, in a random sample of 1,000 adult caregivers, 56 percent were female and 44 percent were male (“Selected Caregiver Statistics”, 2001). According to that same survey, the number of male caregivers is up 25 percent from five years ago. Despite these growing numbers, the vast majority of research surrounding caregiving issues has focused almost entirely on the female experience. Very little has been documented about the specific needs of men who provide care.

Providing care to a loved one can be an exhaustive experience, regardless of that person’s diagnosis. Withstanding the duties of caregiving is often stressful, physically demanding and emotionally draining. The impact of a disease which causes cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer's or Stroke, adds additional challenges. In some cases, men may find caregiving to be particularly challenging if they lack the support that women generally build into their everyday lives. Men employ different strategies to help “cope” with their caregiving tasks. They may have problems with their physical health or succumb to depression. By exploring these areas, men are better able to equip themselves with the skills necessary to handle their caregiving situations.

Men and household tasks

We know that, when it comes to household responsibilities, traditionally men and women have occupied distinct gender roles. This means that women take on domestic tasks, such as washing dishes and preparing meals while men have responsibility for outside chores, such as household repairs or handling finances. In situations where the female care receiver is no longer able to perform these tasks, responsibility may fall to their male care providers. In such cases, men may have to learn new skills such as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. Male caregivers may also seek outside assistance, such as a cooking class or housekeeping service.

Men and personal care

Caregiving tasks do not just incorporate household labor. They often include personal tasks such as bathing and dressing. A male caregiver may even need to apply makeup to or fix the hair of his loved one. For most men these tasks are unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable. Historically, studies have found that men are less likely to engage in this type of hands-on care. However, several recent studies suggest that an overwhelming majority of male caregivers take on full responsibility for all personal care and do not place limitations on the range of care tasks they perform (Cahill, 2000; Kramer & Lambert, 1999).

Depression and physical health

According to recent studies, an estimated 45-59% of family caregivers are clinically depressed. Approximately 31% of male caregivers experience some depression as a result of their caregiving experience (“Selected Caregiver Statistics”, 2001). A caregiver may feel depressed as a result of a multitude of factors, some of which are: role overload, isolation or lack of emotional support. Since a caregiver’s physical health is directly related to the amount and frequency of stress they experience, it is especially important for them to be conscious of their personal health status. Men who continue to provide care on a long-term basis are physically at risk in multiple ways. Caregivers often engage in physically demanding tasks such as lifting and bathing, and many report a decrease in the number of hours per day they spend sleeping (Kramer, 2000). When these factors are combined with a loss of routine or feelings of instability, caregivers are more susceptible to physical decline (Braithwaite, 1996). Age often increases these risk factors. Older men have higher rates of mortality and are often more susceptible to potentially fatal diseases.

Finding support

It is important for all caregivers to take good care of themselves. For some men this may mean making an appointment with their doctor, or eating a more balanced diet. Caregivers may also find it helpful to seek respite through a local adult day center or by hiring in-home support. Regular breaks from caregiving duties help male caregivers to manage multiple responsibilities while preventing them from becoming worn down or socially isolated. Some men may also find it helpful to talk with someone. Whether through individual counseling, or a local support group, finding a safe place to communicate their needs and concerns is vital to maintaining a sense of connection and well-being.

Kendra Micka, MSW is a Family Consultant with Del Oro Caregiver Resource Center in Carmichael. Ms. Micka completed her Thesis project on Male Caregivers and is currently working on acquiring hours for her license.